Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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The Not-For-Profit Chief Executive: An Insider View

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posted on 2021-11-15, 06:01 authored by Szabo, Claire

Running a not-for-profit (NFP) organisation is not a straight-forward task. The Chief Executive (CE) must deliver on promises to the Board and members, meet the needs of funders, coordinate with partner organisations, lead staff, and ensure that services to clients are effective. The NFP CE leads her organisation through a maze of separate, overlapping and occasionally colliding stakeholder interests. In this study, I investigate in theory and practice, the ways NFP CEs work within their distinct environment of specific accountabilities to negotiate a viable strategic direction for their organisations. I argue thatnavigating the accountability landscape is a key feature of NFP leadership. This thesis looks at the question: how do NFP CEs lead effectively? Sub-questions include: what is effective not-for-profit leadership, what are some of the frameworks employed by CEs to navigate their accountabilities, and how do CEs judge the success of their leadership? I present an insider view, based on my own experience as a CE of an NFP organisation, English Language Partners New Zealand (ELPNZ). The thesis traces my research journey as I moved through cycles of theorising, data collection, and reflection. Starting with data from a pilot study, I present results of interviews with five local-level managers regarding their perceptions of accountability. There is notable variety in how the informants in the pilot study describe and rank their accountabilities. Rather than seeing this result as anomalous, I capitalise on differences and uncover multiple accountability conceptualisations. Utilising theoretical categorisations, I note where 'upward' accountabilities to funders compete with 'downward' accountabilities to clients or 'lateral' accountabilities to other sector organisations.

With the accountability landscape in mind, I review literature on NFP leadership. Scholarship on leadership has moved away from a focus on great leaders' traits and towards transactional, situational and contextualised models. Borrowing from this evolution in the leadership literature, I posit that the various accountability 'orientations' uncovered in my pilot study could be considered as behaviours in context rather than personal traits; behaviours that may be adaptive within an environment of multiple accountabilities. I employ both autoethnographic techniques and interviews with other CEs to unpack different 'mindscapes' behind NFP leadership in New Zealand. A series of research journals over a two-month period notes the leadership acts I had undertaken with others, my effectiveness, reflections, and learning. Further data were gathered through interviews with four CEs of national, government-funded, membership organisations.

The study contributes to both academic and practitioner enquiry. Findings included linkages between organisational accountabilities, and the mechanisms and processes CEs employ to lead their organisations. NFP CEs develop unique descriptions of the groups to whom they account and have individualised conceptualisations of a ranking or pattern. Mission leadership processes and organisational management (with associated hierarchies) simultaneously shape the CE's role. CEs can be effective when they implement a conscious programme of leadership and practice deliberately situational approaches to accountability.


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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Author Retains Copyright

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Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Degree Name

Master of Commerce and Administration

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

Victoria Management School


Jones, Deborah